Rozner: Crawford's Blackhawks years will stand test of time
It is one of the grand Chicago sports traditions that an athlete is never more beloved than when he is gone.
Such is the case with Corey Crawford, the adoration never more pronounced than since the Blackhawks told him they would go young and cheap in net, and allowed the free agent goaltender to sign with the New Jersey Devils.
The number of times over the years that fans and experts gave up on Crawford is at least a dozen, due to concussions, illness or inconsistency, but even last season the fan base wanted Robin Lehner re-signed and Crawford moved at the trade deadline.
In the postseason, Crawford struggled to find his game again after falling ill just before camp, but his spectacular game against Vegas was a reminder of what the 35-year-old Crawford has been -- and what he may yet have left in the tank.
But to pretend now that he was always worshipped is a revision at best, many forgetting his early struggles in the 2015 postseason when Scott Darling became an overnight sensation.
Ultimately, Crawford became Crawford again and carried the Hawks in the Stanley Cup Final against Tampa, the Hawks winning the final 3 games and Crawford allowing only 2 goals in those 3 victories.
In 2013, there were calls for Crawford to be replaced early in the Final against Boston, bringing eye rolls from teammates at such foolishness. The Hawks won the last 3 games of that series as well, Crawford giving up 3 goals in the last 2 games.
Both times, Crawford should have been the Conn Smythe winner, a reminder that in 2010 they won despite mediocre goaltending, and the next two Cups because of spectacular goaltending.
The current respect for Crawford was not always apparent, his rise to starter a surprise to many during the 2010-11 season, and his breakout playoff series against Vancouver an announcement of what might be.
But in the 2012 postseason, a 4-2 series defeat, Crawford was jeered when the Hawks lost to Coyotes. The offense managed 12 goals in 6 games, including 4 in 3 home games, the Hawks unable to handle a much more physical opponent that stood up at the blueline and dared them to chip and chase.
They lost 3 games in overtime and Crawford was blamed for 2 soft OT goals, one his fault and one a fluke, but that team's problem was not in goal, a point Jonathan Toews made perfectly clear after the Hawks were eliminated.
That night there was little interest in Crawford postgame, and I spent about 10 minutes with him in the dressing room. His head was up, but he stared off into the distance, which has almost always been his postgame posture.
"I know that I can play great hockey. I'm sure of that," Crawford said following Game 6 against the Coyotes. "There were a lot of ups and down this year and I think you learn a lot from that."
The 27-year-old Crawford had only played 122 NHL games, or about two goaltending seasons, and few outside the room believed in him.
"I know I played better than last year at times, and I know I've got some things to work on, some issues to take care of," Crawford said. "I'm disappointed in that. I could have been better in this series.
"But I know what I've got in me and I'll be working hard this summer to get better all the way around. I believe in myself and what I can do at this level."
Perhaps not even the Hawks knew in 2012 that Crawford was capable of carrying the team to a pair of Stanley Cups, and though his reliability moving forward is very much in question, and a big part of why Crawford is no longer here, the following should not be up for debate:
• He is a Top 10 player in franchise history.
• He is as responsible as anyone for two championship banners.
• He is the only Hawks goaltender to win two Stanley Cups.
• His number should hang in the rafters, alongside Tony Esposito and Glenn Hall.
• He will go down as one of the most underrated players to ever wear the sweater.
It's perversely fitting that the outcry over Crawford's departure ought to make him feel good, considering how often he failed to get the support he deserved while here, including after signing two contract extensions.
It seems now, however, that his place in team history is secure, something that sometimes eluded him while playing for the franchise, but there is no way to view his decade with the team as anything less than crucial to the greatest period the West Side hockey club has ever known.
The day his number is retired, perhaps Corey Crawford will feel the love now coming his way.
And he will know that he deserves it.